Lest we forget

SOS: SAVE OUR SCHOOLS: As the juggernaut of time grinds forward, many institutions in society vanish into thin air and educational institutions are no exception. From the more-than-1,000-year-old Kanthalloor Shala to many of the Government schools in the city, which are on the verge of extinction, the list of vanished and vanishing schools is really long. This four-part series do a thousand-year scan of the city’s educational history. The first part explores the legendary Kanthalloor Shala, known as the Nalanda of the south

February 14, 2014 05:33 pm | Updated May 18, 2016 08:13 am IST - Thiruavananthapuram

Inscriptions of Rajendra Chola (AD 1013-1045) found in the Valiyasala Valiashalai Mahadevar Temple bear testimony to the antiquity of the Kanthallloor Shala

Inscriptions of Rajendra Chola (AD 1013-1045) found in the Valiyasala Valiashalai Mahadevar Temple bear testimony to the antiquity of the Kanthallloor Shala

Many youngsters in the city must be aware of the great Indian universities of the past, Nalanda and Takshashila. However, most of them would not know that 1,000 years ago, a similar university existed right here in the city, which, according to some scholars, was superior to Nalanda and Takshashila. Kanthalloor Shala or Sarva Chattanamadam, arguably, in the vicinity of Valiyasala, beside the Killi river, is the oldest educational institution in the city.

The Chola invasion of Southern Kerala, a 1,000 years ago, led by Raja Raja I, seemed to have taken place around the Kanthalloor Shala. The inscriptions of this king extol him as ‘Kanthalloor Chalai Kalamarutta Raja Raja Tevan’, an epithet that has bogged down scholars in unending scholarly arguments. A commonly accepted explanation of ‘Kalamarutta’ is that the Chola King made an endowment and fixed the number of ‘Kalams’ or dinner plates (fellowships in modern terminology). If ‘Kalam’ is read as ships, then the King’s title refers to destroying warships. The argument in favour of the later interpretation is that Kanthalloor Shala, towards the last century of its existence, gradually transformed into a military training centre.

The location of Kanthalloor Sala has also been a matter of hot debate. Vizhinjam (which was once Rajendra Chola Pattanam) has a compound known as Valiya Chola Sala Purayidam. Could it be another short lived University that the Cholas established? Some scholars also locate the Kanthalloor Shala in Neyyattinkara. However, the evidence in favour of Thiruvananthapuram is very strong. The ninth century Anandapura Varnanam also explicitly refers to Kanthalloor Shala in the location of Valiyasala. Kanthalloor Shala had four halls – Palaya Sala, Arya Sala, Valiya Sala and Chinna Sala, and three of them remain even today as names of places in and around Valiyasala.

Defaced inscriptions of Rajendra Chola (AD 1013-1045) found in the Valiyasala Mahadevar Temple bear testimony to its antiquity. Taking all this into account, the works of Gopinatha Rao, K. Neelakanta Sasthri, S. Desivinayagam Pillai and K. Maheswaran Nair do not leave much doubt that Kanthalloor Shala was in Thiruvananthapuram.

Graphic details of the oldest educational institution in the city are available to us through the Prakrit work titled Kuvalayamala by Jain saint Udyodana Suri in the eighth century. This work was brought to light by Dr. Maheswaran Nair, former Director of Archaeology, through his doctoral dissertation at Kerala University a few decades ago. The protagonist of Kuvalayamala , Prince Kuvalaya Chandra, came in search of the princess of his dreams and reached Thiruvananthapuram, arguably through Kottoor-Ambasamudram pass, where he noticed that the ‘country’ was rich in cardamom, sandal wood, jackfruit trees and areca nut palms. He crossed a river (Karamana/Killi river, both of which have changed routes even in the last century) and saw a large building. He secured entry into it and stayed there and observed the educational process which he recorded in exquisite detail.

Kuvalayachandra’s descriptions tell us that Kanthalloor Shala was really a massive University which had students from Lata, Karnata, Malavya, Kanyakubja, Gollaya, Maharastra, Saurastra, Thakka, Andhra and Saidhava countries or races. The work quotes some fragments from the original dialect spoken by the persons of each group. “The Colla spoke ada de while the Matsyadesiya whispered tere mere au . The Barbara spoke kitto kimmo . The Pratihara spoke sari pari . The Thakka spoke eham teham , the Maruta spoke appam tuppam, the Lata spoke aurham kaum tumham, the Kannada spoke adi pandi mare and the Andhra ate pute ratim .”

The whispers, cries, vociferous utterances, naughty assertions, petty quarrels, and so on that betray the general calibre, character, taste and habit of the students are mentioned. One asked in good Sanskrit “Oh Varsni! How was the food there?” To which another responded “Oh! Bhatta! You touched my food. Behold, I am a veritable Taksaka, and not a mere Vasuki!”

Discipline seems to have been an issue then as it is now. The system of fine practised in Kanthalloor Shala tells us that the headache of college administrators is nothing new. Use of filthy language attracted a fine of a half a Kazanch of gold. Assaulting others would end up in a fine of one gold kash and the assaulted also had to pay half a kazhanch gold! Use of weapons to wound others resulted in dismissal. Wearing arms in class rooms was banned. We get to know of these details from inscriptions at Parthivasekharapuram Vedic College which says it is modelled after Kanthalloor Shala. This also tells us that Kanthalloor Shala was the Nalanda of the south, it was looked upon as a model by the people of that time.

The prince is said to have noticed various Vyakhyana Mandalis or debating groups in the University. The subjects discussed in the Mandalis were: Vyakarana, Bauddha Dars’ana, Samkhya Dar’sana, Vaisesika Dar’sana, Mimamsa Dar’sana, Naiyayika Dar’sana, and Lokayata Dar’sana. The Vyakhyanamandali on Vyakarana discussed Lopa, Agama, Adesa, Visarga, and so on.

That all philosophies were taught, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and very interestingly Lokayata or Charvaka philosophy (which is a materialistic school), tells us about the catholicity in outlook of Kanthalloor Shala, compared to Nalanda and Thakshashila, which kept Lokayata at bay. Dr. Maheswaran Nair comments on the impact of the Lokayata teaching at Kanthalloor thus: “Kanthalloor University deeply influenced the general outlook of the local people and shaped what may be called the heterodox point of view that is a unique feature of the Keralite reaction to established authority. The salient aspect of this outlook is the tendency to be always ‘inamicable’ to authority and an enormous degree of susceptibility in regard to the prescriptions of a higher order. At a time when the Indian attitude was to abide by the authority of prescriptions, the Keralite attitude was to challenge whatever is accepted as authority and even to fetch ruin thereby”.

Even as Valiyasala remains an unimposing patch in the city, one is tempted to believe that Kanthalloor Shala has left a certain tradition of attitude, thriving even in current times.


There is no landmark in the city for the Nalanda of the south. If the monorail is till Valiyasala, the station nearest to it can be named Kanthalloor Shala Station. A plaque could also be erected in front of the Chala Boys’ school.


The students are referred to as ‘chattas’ (‘cattanamatam is a college or teaching institution and ‘savvachattanammatham’, a University). Admissions seem to have been based on convincing five senior students of the University as regards sufficient knowledge of Vyakarana, Meemamsa and Veda.

The subjects taught in the University include: Mantra, Yoga, Jyhotisa, Rasabhandha, Rasayana (Chemistry), Chandas, Indrajala (Magic), Dantakarma, Kayakarma, Lepy karma, Citra, goldsmithy, Visaharatantram, paediatrics, and witchcraft. The following disciplines under Dhanurveda were taught: Khetakaprave’sa, Asipraves’a, Dhanu-prave’sa, Kuntayuddha, Bahuyuddha . There was a separate section for the fine arts in which, painting, vocal music, instrumental music, dramatic performance and dance were also taught.

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